WASHINGTON — Amid fears that Boeing will lose a $35 billion aerial tanker contract to a European competitor, senators from Washington state and Kansas pressured President Barack Obama on Thursday to side with the U.S. aerospace giant, which promises to bring thousands of jobs to the two states if it wins the competition.
"Our economy and our workers cannot afford for this contract and the jobs it will create to go overseas," said Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, adding that Boeing employees "are hungry for this contract."
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas implored "everybody who's out there Tweeting, chirping and Facebooking" to contact the White House immediately and stress the importance of getting the Air Force to award the contract to Chicago-based Boeing.
"It is in the national interest that we ought to do this," Roberts said. "The Air Force ought to pay attention to that. ... Our workers in Kansas and Wichita stand at the ready."
If Boeing wins the contract, the company promises, it will create 11,000 jobs in Washington state and 7,500 jobs in Kansas. The company has large manufacturing facilities in Washington state, Kansas, Missouri and another plant slated to open this year in South Carolina.
If Boeing loses the contract, the new jobs will go to Mobile, Ala., where the parent company of Airbus, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., promises to build the airplanes.
Business officials and lawmakers from Alabama sound increasingly confident that EADS will get the nod.
"If this could happen in Mobile, and it could, it would be the best thing since the French discovered the port here," Republican Sen. Richard Shelby told an audience of 300 business leaders in Mobile earlier this week.
Washington state and Kansas politicians are engaged in an all-out blitz to get Obama's attention.
The governors of the two states, Democrat Chris Gregoire of Washington and Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas, are heading a group called the U.S. Tanker Coalition. Earlier this week, they wrote a letter to Obama, saying that Boeing could build the tankers "and prove the best value for the American taxpayer."
The lobbying effort comes as the decade-long competition over the aerial refueling tankers heads to an apparent end. Officials said a final decision could come in a matter of days or weeks.
"We're now in the home stretch — finally — of the competition," Murray said. "And this award could not come at a more critical time in our efforts to rebuild our economy, grow our work force and create jobs in all our communities."
She borrowed a line from the president's State of the Union speech, in which he urged Americans to focus on "winning the future."
"To win the future, we're going to need to win this contract," Murray said. "It's a contract that will build things here, create jobs here and reward innovation right here at home."
Roberts said that if the White House was serious about creating more jobs, "the president should look no further than the procurement of the Boeing tanker." He said the contract would have an annual $388 million economic impact on Kansas.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this has been too long," Roberts said. "It's been a 10-year effort, and these are Eisenhower-era airplanes" that the Air Force would be replacing. "It's time to award this contract and put people to work."
The tanker issue has generated plenty of heat so far in the new Congress.
Last month, Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran teamed up to sponsor a bill that would require the Pentagon to consider any unfair advantages for either company gained through subsidies before awarding the contract.
At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee in late January, senators from both parties loudly criticized the Air Force after military officials acknowledged that they'd accidentally disclosed secret data to Boeing and EADS before the companies had submitted their final bids.
Military officials investigated the disclosure and decided that the bidding process could proceed. Cantwell said she planned to ask the Defense Department inspector general to investigate the incident.
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